The Sins of the Father

Have you noticed that some family patterns seem to last through generations?

For instance, I know two families that have the same number of children, gender, and birth order as their family of origin. The first woman had a girl, then two boys: the same as her mother. Both women had been excessively harsh with their daughters to the point of abuse, and they both had been overly permissive with their sons.

The second woman had a girl then a boy from her first marriage.

In her second marriage, she had another girl, then a boy and a third girl. Exactly the same as her mother did. Sadly, both the second woman and her mother had been through contentious child custody issues with their first husbands.

I’ve also noticed similar patterns along male lines.

  • A man whose father was unfaithful to his mother was also unfaithful to his own wife.
  • Another man who abandoned his wife and children had a son who also abandoned his wife and children. Neither of those men had been sexually unfaithful to their wives. They simply left without explanation.

Yet another man was an alcoholic.

This man’s father taught him to drink, and the practice of consuming excessive alcohol persisted at every family gathering, much to the dismay of his wife. Neither of his parents admitted that their son was an alcoholic. To do so would require them to examine their own consumption and likely threaten their lifestyle.

Now his wife has a dilemma. To set boundaries with her husband would also mean losing his family, and her own daughter would grow up without her grandparents.

It was a hot mess.

In cases like these, 1 Kings 15 comes to mind. A number of kings are listed as having “committed all the sins his father had done before him.” The same thing can happen with healthy patterns, and the Bible talks about that as well.

“From generation to generation” is a common theme for family patterns in the Old Testament.

However, there are noted cases wherein children do not follow their parents’ patterns. Some with great parents turn into hot messes. Others with hot-mess parents live happy, productive lives. So why is that? More importantly, what can you do?

Some research suggests that we inherit a “predisposition” for a given behavior. In other words, it’s in your genes. Does that mean you are doomed?

My biological family of origin is a mess.

About half of us made it through to the light, more or less. The other half got trapped in the dark side. Some tried recovery programs only to relapse multiple times, and others never made it far enough to consider the possibility of a different lifestyle.

My extended family, that is by marriage, has at least one clear line of addictions. Their grandma was bipolar and self-medicated with alcohol instead of getting treatment. To be fair, I’m not sure treatment was an option in her day. She was probably thought of as a drunk, rather than someone who was trying unsuccessfully to cope with the mood swings of a severe and persistent mental illness. Her daughter became an alcoholic, and her grandchildren got hooked on meth.

Was it in their genes? Or did they learn by observation?

Clearly grandma wasn’t emotionally available and able to teach her own children how to cope with the normal ups and downs of life and the wild emotions that go with them. What they did was “normal” for them.  

I wish I knew the final answer on generationally transmitted problems. Is it genetic or learned? Probably a bit of both. Did they have a choice in the matter? Maybe not, given their environment. Ultimately, we want to say yes.

But who are we to judge? We each have challenges of our own, don’t we?

Jesus said ““Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7)

And that’s where we get stuck, isn’t it?  

We are frequently more concerned with another’s behavior than we are with our own. I mean, after all, if he’s drinking all the time, everything has to be his fault. We are able to justify our own lack of maturity by hiding behind his.

Family dysfunction is the ultimate hot mess. Everyone is more concerned with fixing someone else than they are with addressing their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

One woman was adamant that she had absolutely no fault in causing her marriage problems. She repeatedly said, “I wouldn’t micromanage him if I could trust him to stop drinking. I have to keep on him all the time. He has stopped before … for a while. A few weeks maybe. Then he goes on another business trip and gets totally wasted at his business dinner. I’m afraid he’s going to lose his job. Then what will we do? He encouraged me to give up my own career to raise our daughter. I never should have listened to him! I can’t trust him. He’s just like his dad.”

Was she right? She certainly thought she was.

In reality, she was one of the most anxious people I had ever known. The bigger problem, however, was that she didn’t recognize her own anxiety and the role she was playing in their marriage. That’s denial. And it’s what keeps the negative cycle going.

She honestly believed she had to “keep on him” to quit, and he escaped from her monitoring and constant criticism by drowning himself in drink. He was really good at minimizing his role, too, of course. He was her misbehaving son, and she was his mom. That always makes for a weird arrangement.

As difficult and tangled as their relationship was, they were both making choices. And they were both trying to manipulate one another into changing the cycle. That never works. Neither was willing to attend a 12-step program. Neither admitted that their own behavior was a problem. He didn’t think he needed AA because passing out whenever he drank was a problem because “it didn’t happen that often.” And she didn’t understand why I wanted her to go to Al Anon because “he’s the one with the problem, not me.”

Turns out, Jesus was right. Go figure.

I’ve been talking about this in terms of alcoholism, but the same principle holds true for any relationship dysfunction. Before you consider helping your mate change their behavior, you have to take a look at your own. What are you trying to avoid? What pain are you suffering? Is there a better way to cope with the hard stuff in life?

Turns out, the answer is yes. And help is available from so many places. A lack of money is no excuse. You can get a lot of help for free. You just have to be willing to look for it.